One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich describes the daily routine from reveille at 5 A.M. to lights out at 10 P.M. — in a "special" prison camp in Siberia. The protagonist of the novel is Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a former carpenter, who has been in several of these camps for the past eight years, serving a ten-year term for "treason."
The novel — one could better call it a short novel or a novella — narrates the events of this day without chapter divisions, recording Ivan's progress through the eyes of an omniscient, third-person narrator who sometimes places himself into the protagonist's mind, recording his thoughts and feelings as Ivan himself would express them (see "Style and Narrative Perspective").
When the prisoners are awakened by the sound of a hammer clanging against a steel rail, Ivan does not get up immediately, as is his usual practice. Instead, because he feels feverish, he stays in bed, thinking about the possibility of getting on the sick list. A guard pretends to take him to the punishment cells for his tardiness, but he really only wants Ivan to mop the floor of the guardroom.
After performing this task rather superficially, Ivan has a meager breakfast, and then he goes to the camp hospital, where a young poetmedic checks his temperature and then sends him to work. After picking up his bread ration in his barracks and hiding half of it in a hole in his mattress, Ivan joins the rest of the prisoners for the daily roll call and the frisking, which precedes their march to the worksite.
Ivan's "gang" has been assigned to continue building a power plant, and at the heavily guarded construction site, the prisoners try to find a warm place while the gang bosses negotiate the daily work assignment and the work quota which will determine their food rations. Ivan and his work brigade will lay bricks on the second story of the plant after they prepare the tools and the mortar. This is a job that will fill up the hours and the minutes until their noon break.
During lunch, Ivan is able to trick the kitchen staff into giving his gang two extra bowls of mush, one of which he is allowed to keep for himself. He also picks up a piece of steel which he thinks might be useful later on, and he succeeds in buying himself a cigarette.
After the noon break, Ivan becomes so involved in his task as a bricklayer that he loses track of time and eventually he delays the return of the whole prison detachment because of his feverish perfectionism. After the march back to the camp, the prisoners line up for the regulation body search before reentering the camp. Ivan discovers that he is still carrying the piece of steel he found, which, if discovered by the guards, could lead to severe punishment, possibly death. He panics, momentarily, but once again, he is lucky. He manages to smuggle the piece of steel past the guards.
Later, in return for standing in line for one of his wealthier fellow prisoners, one who has received a food package from home, Ivan is given the man's evening meal ration. After dinner, Ivan is able to buy some good tobacco in another barracks, and he is even lucky enough to receive additional food for guarding a gang member's food parcel during the evening check.
After evening inspection is over, Ivan returns to his bunk and discusses God and the efficacy of prayer with Alyosha, a Baptist prisoner with whom he also shares some of his unexpected "wealth." After a second inspection and roll call, Ivan begins to fall asleep, feeling "almost happy" because of all the "good fortune" which has befallen him during this day.